Imagine if your very life depended on telling a story. Imagine telling a story for one thousand and one nights. Imagine this storyteller as a woman. In One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Tales from the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, a young woman betrothed to King Shahryar, finds herself next in line in this precarious position. King Shahrya, betrayed by his wife, has lost all faith in women. The wife who betrayed him he had executed, along with all the people privy to her indiscretions as well as those who participated. Since then, he takes a “wife” every day, and kills her before the night is over. King Shahrya, this serial killer of young women, meets his match in Scheherazade.
Scheherazade is a consummate storyteller. In fact, Scheherazade created the serial novel and cliffhanger. After telling King Shahrya a story, as the night was approaching and it was time to go to sleep, Scheherazade would begin another story and stop at a critical point. Scheherazade’s stories were so intriguing and entertaining that King Shahrya let her live another day to complete the story. This storytelling went on for a thousand and one nights. In the end, Scheherazade has “cured” the King of his murderous ways and they live happily ever after.
When I first started reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, I thought of Scheherazade. Wilkerson is a masterful storyteller. She tells this story of our discontents, and connects seemingly unrelated events, in such a compelling and engaging way. The first part of this book is entitled: “Toxins in the Permafrost and Heat Rising All Around.” Suffice it to say that racism, the caste system of race in America, is deeply rooted in America’s “permafrost.” A little heat will bring what we believe to be long dormant pathogens of racism to the surface. When Wilkerson begins chapter one, “In the haunted summer of 2016, an unaccustomed heat wave struck the Siberian tundra…,” you wonder exactly where she is going. When she gets there, when you get there with her, you have to marvel at the writing and the connection.
Earlier this month I recommended books by Octavia Butler. On this day, February 24th, in 2006, Butler, another storyteller in the tradition of Scheherazade, passed away. As Butler went where no Black woman writer has gone before in her “science fiction,” Wilkerson takes us to the Siberian tundra, and when the permafrost has melted, the thing that America can simply not get away, the thing that America can simply not resolve, racism, rises to the surface, rearing its ugly head.
It has been more than one thousand and one American nights, and here’s yet one more story to add to all the other American stories about race.